It’s In Tents

Last month, facing another Restaurant Day with the knowledge that my weird tiny European counter oven is perfectly capable of making beautiful macarons, I found myself searching for a small, light, portable table that in the US would be called a card table. I had put it off mainly because of a work deadline, and had planned on doing all the running-around the week of Restaurant Day itself. None of my friends around here seem to have a card table, but I didn’t think it would be a big deal to search around a few shops where you could find (I thought) related home items like storage boxes and laundry baskets. Failing that, maybe the craft shops? No luck. What about that weird plastic-themed randomness called Etola? No dice. Garden stores? Not really, unless I wanted to pay €120 for a full wooden patio set.

It seemed like everything is designer, everything is heavy, and everything is expensive. I did find a “camping table” but it weighed about 25 kilos and was apparently worth its weight in diamonds. Once I had the right search term (after getting help from a Finn) I did manage to find several retkipöydät, but all in the webshops of stores as far away as Tuusula and Vantaa, which was do-able with a free afternoon and a travelcard, but with no guarantee the stock would even be there.  The shops like Clas Ohlson which did list product availablility of both the webshop and brick-and-mortar stores seemed to have at least two options that would work for me but were ALL out of stock in all the Helsinki stores.  Just my luck.

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By Monday evening I was seriously considering duct-taping several cardboard boxes together.  I was so tired of wandering around the city (and the Finnish internet!) stretching my creative limits to determine if any combination of tall things and flat things could be used to support a tray of macarons. By some stroke of genius and cosmic luck, I got a suggestion from a lovely Finn who found a portable camping table in the webshop of a sporting shop called XXL. It must have been kismet, because I had just seen a helicopter fly over with a large XXL sale banner the same afternoon but wasn’t familiar with the store.

I was running out of patience already; it seems that there were a lot of small annoyances that week–people walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk, overly excitable youths with clipboards chasing people down, near-constant rain and dark, websites not making sense, misattribution of blame. And two several very disappointingly stale cookies. Which I ate anyway because they were still cookies.

I did spend a few minutes circling the shop to see if I could find the table on my own, but because this is Finland, that meant getting lost in a labyrinth of shoes and hockey sticks, having to slide through narrow corridors and duck around displays, all the while trying not to run into people who insist on standing RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PATH. Eventually I just showed the link to a sales associate, who found it in the computer but not the shop, and after waiting for two more associates to dig through the warehouse I finally had a table! It’s sleek black aluminum, very light in its carrying case (about the same size as my yoga mat bag) and easy to assemble with an accordion-fold base and some crossbars that snap into place, and a top that rolls out flat like horizontal Venetian blinds. And as a bonus, everything at XXL was 25% off.

I tell this long story not because I think it’s interesting, but because it’s just another in a long line of strange cultural observances that I’ve made over my time here. Curtain rods, toilet plungers, pie tins, dish cupboards. Card tables seem to be a cultural thing, possibly American?  Who knows. I had the thought that in the US, we all have card tables at the very least to make a kids’ table at Thanksgiving.  I did also consider that it’s likely also a function of a society less concerned with cheapness and consumerism than Americans, it’s just that I haven’t really been affected by it before.  I did have some troubles with finding furniture last time I moved, but I guess I’m kind of bohemian (or lazy) in that I’d rather live without inessential furniture now than have to deal with it in the case that I have to move again somewhat soon. In general, I think investing in things that will last, and are functional, or beautiful, or ideally both, is more important than contributing to landfills and unethical business practices.

Especially plastics; I was really shocked when trying to find a table at Etola by how much it reminded me of certain parts of the US. All sorts of cheap trinkets, plastic toys and plastic boxes, plastic Christmas trees and plastic decorations on tacky little wicker Christmas trees painted grey. It was like a tiny Home Decor department at Wal-Mart. And the shop smelled terrible–I had a splitting headache after spending 15 minutes in there. Give me glass and metal and (sustainably produced) wood and paper over plastic, anytime.

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The actual day itself was rather uneventful. I had friends stop by, there were crowds of teenage girls and small boys who like everything sweet, and little old ladies who tend to have a particular fondness for Continental treats. To my surprise, the most popular flavor was my test flavor. I like to do some classic standbys like Earl Grey tea with dark chocolate ganache (a personal favorite) and lemon poppyseed with lemon curd and vanilla buttercream. There’s always a berry flavor, and I had just recently made a batch of very successful simple blackcurrant (or cassis, as the French call them). Then there was black cherry and chocolate, and a chai spiced macaron with vanilla bean buttercream that turned out better than I thought. In the past I’ve done s’mores with chocolate and marshmallow fluff (VERY successful with the kids, but slightly more finicky to make), or matcha with chocolate that are such a pretty green. There was strawberry shortcake and blueberry and the ever-cursed chocolate. But there’s always an odd one out, an adventurous flavor that I always have a sort of fondness for but that has mixed reactions.  Once it was black sesame and ginger marmalade, which I loved and ended up eating most of. The shells were a gorgeous speckled blue-black, piped easily and had a nutty toastyness cut by bright ginger. Then there were little pink ones colored with lingonberry powder and filled with middle eastern-inspired flavors, with rosewater and cream and apricot. Subtle, but very nice. And there were the pumpkin pie, which got a bit soggy from the filling but tasted authentic.

This time it was persimmon, a winter fruit I’m becoming fascinated with. It’s oddly everywhere here although most of the Finns I’ve talked to aren’t entirely sure what it is at first and I haven’t heard of anyone using it in anything. There’s just something about the color and the texture of the fruits that looks so inviting, like you could just sink your teeth into the side of one and taste nature. I haven’t been a fan of them for a while, since I had the misfortune to get a big chalky, sour mouthful of a very unripe persimmon, but their abundance in the shops and the market is too tempting. And what’s life without some adventure, right?

It turns out, nice, ripe persimmons have a very grown-up sort of flavor. They taste watery in the same way that cucumbers and watermelons taste watery, sitting kind of far back on your tongue, and the flavor is a little bit of melon and a little bit of pineapple and a little bit of vegetable. I put them in the category of rhubarb and figs and those little physalis that the Finns call ananas kirsikka (pineapple cherry) but Americans call ground cherry or  husk cherry or ground tomato or husk tomato or cape gooseberry or Chinese lantern and for which I have no name at all and have hence adopted the Finnish one. You can eat a little bit of them at a time, and it’s a very exciting and sophisticated thing to do, but not something you’d eat everyday.

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I colored the shells with sea buckthorn (tyrni) powder, which is the same bright, watercolor orange as persimmons. I never know how the shell additions will turn out; some powders and flavors seem to do fine, like cinnamon and vanilla, and powdered tea leaves, while others , like cocoa and matcha and cranberry powder seem to suck up all the moisture and change the texture of the batter. The sea buckthorn powder turned out well, and the shells were a warm ochre. A confession: I tend to like my shells just this side of golden, since it’s really unsettling to bite into a sticky, underdone macaron shell, and the orange color hides the slightly-that-side-of-golden batches really well.

For the filling, I had made a few batches of Swiss buttercream, which isn’t difficult but tastes divine, especially to someone who isn’t so much a fan of the cloyingly saccharine Betty Crocker school of frosting. I whipped some pureed ripe persimmon fruit into the buttercream for that gentle orange color and added a bit of confectioner’s sugar to stabilize it. It could have used an extra night in the fridge to firm up first, but Restaurant Day waits for no cook. I think the stroke of brilliance really came when I decided to place a bit of fresh raspberry into the middle of each macaron, surrounded and cushioned by the buttercream so as not to seep juices into the shell and compromise its structural integrity. The result was a lovely orange colored cookie that, when you bit into the center, gave a little explosion of bright pink acidity amidst the subtle warm fruitiness of persimmon. I thought it might be a bit too odd of a flavor, but we all get lucky sometimes.

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We set up in Esplanadi, and I was belatedly glad I had made that executive decision. But it felt different this time, and I don’t know if it’s just that time goes on and things change, people change, maybe I’m changing. Or maybe the event itself is changing. The park was full of those semi-professional-looking mini marquee-style tents and people with loads of kit or a lot of packaged things. All that is very sensible of course when you’re planning on standing outside in November in Finland and the chance of getting rained on is high, but it made it hard to maneuver around the park and to see what was going on. People with small tables like us didn’t really stand a chance of being noticed, especially with the tent people employing increasingly aggressive sales tactics. Everything seemed more streamlined, more professional, more like festival vendors and less like humble home cooks, most of us foreign, gathering to share small amounts of tasty things made with love from far away.

Maybe it was the weather. Maybe the local food trucks are trying to hedge in on the action. Maybe it’s just here, the epicenter of it all, evolving faster than anywhere else because of the metropolitan area and the diversity and the competition. Maybe it is changing, and maybe it will change again. Either way, I think it’s okay. I don’t know if I’ll do it again.  I’ll be sad if this has been my last time, but I know things have to change. There’s a time for everything, and it’s all about how you adapt and grow.  I have new skills because of Restaurant Day, and memories. I think memories link us through time and space, anchoring us to each other and to places that are meaningful. Sometimes those memories are of major events–tragedies, celebrations, big moves–and sometimes they are small things. Smiles, cups of coffee, afternoon walks, or just macarons.

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